With scores of new scripted shows premiering in September and October alone, the fall season redefines eclectic -- fairy tale themes! Unlikely roommates! Witches and ghosts! Unlikely couples! Hilarious parents! High-tech paranoia! Dinosaurs!
Yet winding through it all is a curious sense of nostalgia, as if writers and network execs were sharing a collective Facebookian desire to resurrect old relationships, to reconnect viewers with the people we once knew and the people we once were.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Fall television: In the Sept. 11 Calendar section, a Critic's Notebook overview of the the fall television lineup referred to the CW series "The Secret Circle" as "The Inner Circle."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 18, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Fall television: Mary McNamara's Sept. 11 Critic's Notebook overview of the fall television lineup referred to the CW series "The Secret Circle" as "The Inner Circle."
Certainly the midlife career renaissance continues, at least among white males between ages 50 and 70. Following in the footsteps of Ed O'Neill and Craig T. Nelson, Tim Allen, after an overlong stint with the Intergalactic Alliance, returns to active duty as a comedic paterfamilias, this time in ABC's "Last Man Standing."
Ted Danson, who has illuminated cable in the past few years on "Damages" (FX, the DirectTV), "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Bored to Death" (both HBO), has decided to go not just network but network franchise, joining "CSI" to replace Laurence Fishburne and with any luck may spruce up the ratings. Over at the struggling Starz, another "Cheers" survivor, Kelsey Grammer, is pulling a Ray Romano by playing totally against type as an ailing but ruthless Chicago mayor in "Boss." (Coincidentally, Romano, who just lost his against-type-role with the cancellation of "Men of a Certain Age," is reuniting with Patricia Heaton for the return of Heaton's current show, "The Middle.") And a season after his "Boston Legal" spouse, William Shatner, came and went with "$#*! My Dad Says," James Spader returns to TV, replacing Steve Carell on "The Office."
And it isn't just 50-plus but still fabulous guys who are back. The biggest reunion buzz surrounds Sarah Michelle Gellar, who helped save and change the world with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." After years away from the small screen, she's making up for lost time by doing double duty in CW's twin-themed mystery-thriller-soap "Ringer."
Entire shows of yesteryear are returning as well. Figuring that if "Hawaii Five-O" can do it, anyone can do it, ABC has straight-up remade "Charlie's Angels," while NBC attempts to Americanize the British hit "Prime Suspect." Other, more diffuse apparitions of television past abound -- if you squint just a little you can find "Charmed" in CW's "The Inner Circle," "Dallas" in ABC's "Revenge" and "Laverne & Shirley" meets "Kate & Allie" in CBS' "2 Broke Girls."
Not to be outdone, yesteryear itself is also making an appearance. ABC and NBC deliver glamorized, stylized versions of the 1960s with "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club." If the '60s aren't quite "long, long time ago" enough for you, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and NBC's "Grimm" bridge the worlds between ancient and modern, adult and child, and Fox's "Terra Nova," bearing the ultimate Golden Age imprint of Steven Spielberg, envisions the world as it was 85 million years ago. Now that's nostalgia.
Some of this is simply a combination of business and chance. Every year, an icon or two returns from the world of film or self-industry-imposed retirement to much hue and cry -- Betty White, anyone? And even with a shifting demographic, longtime successes like Allen and Grammer remain good bets, (although after two failed shows, Grammer's decision to get out of the sitcom biz may not have been entirely directed by a need to stretch.)
Likewise, there's a remake or two in the mix every season (though someone will have to sit down and carefully explain to me why it had to be "Charlie's Angels"), and certainly the huge cultural footprint the period drama "Mad Men" has managed to leave despite its consistently small audience makes it perfect network knockoff fodder. (Cigarettes, highballs and restrictive undergarments; honestly, how hard could it be?)
Yet there seems to be something at work beyond the usual pattern of reuse and recycle. Trapped as we are in the sucking, pestilent swamp of political and economic woes, it is understandable that Americans would long for that elusive Simpler Time. When traveling by air was an adventure and everybody knew your name, when there was just the one mouth of hell, which could be contained by teenagers, and realistic-looking dinosaurs were revolutionary.
With two wars raging, a government that's barely speaking to itself and a financial community that appears to be permanently bipolar, it's difficult to envision a future that could in any way be considered entertainment. Only CBS' "Person of Interest" and Showtime's "Homeland" take on current events directly; even the recent passion for the romantic antihero who discerns and speaks the truth appears to be waning.
Apparently, in the eyes of the networks, we can't handle the truth. Or maybe they feel that things are complicated enough. What could be more familiar and soothing than the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar, a Tim Allen sitcom or a "Charlie's Angels" reboot?
But memory, like time, is a tricky thing with which to tinker. It's famously and perilously selective -- one person's Golden Age was inevitably another person's period of oppression -- and like it or not, time changes us in ways subtle but irrevocable.
It will be interesting to see how audiences old and young respond to the fairy tales and the icons, to the period pieces and the throwbacks. It's one thing to friend an old high school buddy to see how the years have treated her; it's another to reach that far back and truly begin again.